Meningococcal Disease

Meningococcal disease is a rare, life-threatening condition. While the disease is very serious, in most cases early detection and treatment result in complete recovery.

The infection is not transferred easily. It is spread by secretions from the nose and throat of a person, without obvious symptoms, who is carrying the bacteria that cause the disease. Close and prolonged contact is needed to pass it on.

People infected with meningococcal disease become unwell very quickly and tragically around 10 percent of patients with the disease die, despite receiving rapid treatment.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of meningococcal disease are often non-specific, and may include sudden onset of fever, headache, neck stiffness, dislike of bright lights, nausea, abdominal pain and vomiting.

Young children may have less specific symptoms. These may include irritability, difficulty waking, high-pitched crying and refusal to eat. 

Other early signs in young children and teenagers may include leg pain, joint pain and cold hands and feet despite a high fever.

Not all people with meningococcal disease develop a rash but if a rash occurs it typically does not disappear with gentle pressure on the skin.  The rash is often red-purplish spots that may look like bruising.

Who is at risk?

Meningococcal disease can affect people at any age, however babies, small children, adolescents and young adults are most at risk.

The Hunter New England region generally has between 12 and 20 cases each year.

How is it treated?

Meningococcal disease can be potentially deadly and if anyone suspects symptoms, they should seek medical attention immediately. Rapid treatment with antibiotics is vital to improve the chance of a full recovery.

What is the public health response?

The local Public Health Unit (PHU) responds immediately to each new meningococcal infection notification.

The PHU works to identify people who have had close contact with the patient. This is because people with meningococcal disease have usually acquired the bacteria from someone who is carrying it in their nose and throat without any obvious symptoms. Antibiotics are given to all close contacts identified, to clear their potential carriage of the bacteria and prevent further spread.

The clearance antibiotic is not a treatment for meningococcal disease. All contacts should still be aware of the signs and symptoms of meningococcal disease and see a doctor urgently should these occur.

Current health alerts are published on the Hunter New England Health website and community alerts via social media are also issued to remind people to be watchful for symptoms.

How is it prevented?

Immunisation is the best protection against meningococcal disease.

Meningococcal disease is caused by different strains of disease, including meningococcal strains A, B, C, W and Y.

Under the National Immunisation Program, vaccination for the A, C, W and Y strains is free and recommended as part of routine childhood immunisation at 12 months of age. People who have had a meningococcal vaccine should still be on the lookout for symptoms as the other strains of meningococcal bacteria can cause the disease.

NSW Health is offering meningococcal vaccine for the four strains (A, C, W and Y) to students in Years 10 and 11 in 2018.  Students who miss school clinics, or young people aged 16-19 years who are not attending school, can see their GP for free meningococcal ACWY vaccine.

Vaccines are also available for infants against the B strain through general practitioners on a private prescription.

More information

For more information, please contact your nearest Public Health Unit:
Newcastle: 4924 6499
Tamworth: 6764 8000

Additional information is also available on the NSW Health website.